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For many years, qawwali was performed almost entirely in dargahs, the shrines dedicated to Sufi Saints like Amir Khusrau and Bullah Shah. This is why qawwali melodies are often set to their poems, or to modern poems inspired by them. Because the dargah is not a concert hall, it seems likely that the line between performers and listeners was once far from sharp, just as with gospel music. The most talented singers would naturally be granted the spotlight, and everyone else would sing along or otherwise contribute what they could. Now that qawwali has become a concert form, the qawwali “party” does have a commonly recurring structure. But it is still largely a loose amalgam of people united primarily by family ties, friendship, and a love of music and God.

A few main singers sit near the front of the stage, a couple of whom usually play harmoniums. Behind them are several background singers who clap their hands and join in on the chorus.

Towards the back center of the stage there are percussionists, who usually play the Punjabi folk taal Keharwa. There are no hard and fast rules as to what sort of percussion is used. Sometimes a single tabla is played without a baya, or a dholak (Punjabi folk drum), or even Arabic, Latin or African drums. For large concerts or television appearances, this informal ensemble may be supplemented by almost any kind of instrument, eastern or western: santoor, guitar, mandolin, clarinet. The primary focus is on the main singers, so any addition to the background ensemble can be added as easily as icing to a cake.


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the first qawwali singer to became famous in the West partly because he realized that the essence of qawwali can be communicated more effectively if you are willing to change that icing. By developing new arrangements with western rock musicians like Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, some of which ended up in American film scores, he became more popular in the West than any other Indian musician except (possibly) Ravi Shankar. However, Khan’s greatness as a musician came from the fact that he made as many changes to the “cake” as he did to the “icing.” This is dramatically revealed by listening to the Shanachie Records compilation Kings and Queen of Qawwali, which enables us to contrast Khan’s music with that of his predecessors, as well as to appreciate how he was both faithful to and creative with the traditions he inherited.

Aziz Mian was a true original who wrote many of his own lyrics and sang in a style that was almost close to oratory.

As a poet, he explored the themes of Sufi mysticism in thought provoking and sometimes controversial ways. No one else could have written lyrics like, “Trust me, the angels will ask the pious on judgment day: ‘Why didn’t you sin? Didn’t you trust in God’s mercy?’” or, “Even if he sends me to hell, I will still be grateful, since we punish only those who we count as our own.” But musically, he relied on a single format, which he rarely varied. For the verses, he would stop the background music, chant mostly on one or two notes accompanied only by his own harmonium playing, and then on his signal the rest of the ensemble would return for the chorus.

The Sabri Brothers were among the first qawwali singers to perform outside of the dargah, and they set the standard and the format for most qawwali singers that followed. But it was the virtuosity of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that developed that format, and transformed qawwali from a semi-classical to a classical music form. He expanded the traditional introductory incantation into a full-fledged classical alap. His original melodies were full of rhythmic surprises and dynamic swells. And his improvisations developed those melodies using the most sophisticated Khayal techniques, including sargam, tarana, meend, and fast, complex cross-rhythms. Perhaps most importantly, however, there was the rich expressive quality of the voice itself: rough and gritty without being coarse or unrefined, and with the emotional intensity of a prayer or a cry of intoxicated joy.

Nusrat’s tragically early death at 48 scattered, but did not destroy, his legacy. His cousin Badar made some albums after Nusrat’s death, but died himself earlier this year. Nusrat had been training his nephew Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who now leads the family qawwali party. But although Rahat is the keeper of this musical flame, the fire is not spreading the way it once did.

The ensemble has been supplemented by non-relatives because of the recent deaths. And as good as Rahat is, it is impossible to avoid comparing him to Nusrat, a comparison from which he inevitably falls short. Rahat has therefore been unable to maintain the popularity of his family’s qawwali party in the West. At the moment, there is no one who dominates the qawwali stage the way Nusrat once did, and perhaps there never will be. Nevertheless, qawwali is still performed in concerts and at dargahs by families that have maintained this tradition for generations.

Furthermore, qawwali has made a profound impact on Indian popular music. Rahat also has a successful career as a filmi singer, and his solo album Tere Bina showcases his new vocal skills with lush A.R. Rahman-style arrangements. He both croons softly on love ballads, and belts out Nusrat-style taans on the heavily improvised Laal Alap Sufi. After decades of a single smooth filmi singing style, this is a welcome change. There is also Kailash Kher, a Hindu Brahmin from a non-musical family who taught himself to sing with help from numerous teachers. His voice quality evokes memories of Nusrat, but he rightly refers to his music as “Sufi pop.” He performs in jeans with a rock band, and uses just enough qawwali vocal technique to effectively ornament short radio-friendly melodies. Nevertheless, his most recent album, Jhoomo Re,features a traditional poem by Amir Khusrau, and his close musical relationship with his arrangers Paresh and Naresh Kamnath is reminiscent of the family bonds of a traditional qawwali party. This is not qawwali, but it is superb pop music, far more creative and fresh than most of what is on the radio in England and the United States. And it couldn’t have existed if Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had not expanded his influence in so many ways.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.